Mr. Helm gave his drums a muffled, bottom-heavy sound that placed them in the foundation of the arrangements, and his tom-toms were tuned so that their pitch would bend downward as the tone faded. But his playing didn’t call attention to himself. Three bass-drum thumps at the beginning of one of the Band’s anthems, “The Weight,“ were all that he needed to establish the song’s gravity. His playing served the song. In “The Shape I’m In," he juxtaposed Memphis soul, New Orleans rumba and military tattoo. But though it was tersely responsive to the music, the drumming also had an improvisational feel.
In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time.